Creating drama in RPGs with choice and stakes

In my last post I responded to the idea that “there are no rules for the GM”, and explained why I disagreed with that premise. In the few discussions I have had and observed on that topic, one of the most common reasons given for a GM to ‘break the rules’ is to create drama or suspense in their games.

While that is certainly one way to achieve such an effect, it is a strategy that primarily targets the player while ignoring the fictional world of the character and is, in effect, only ‘half the game’ of playing an RPG.

In this post, I discuss the ideas of choice and stakes, two key elements of storytelling that can create drama and suspense for the player via the medium of the character and the fictional reality of the game.

In my experience, drama that revolves around these elements is much more satisfying for both player and GM than purely mechanical approaches.

RPGs as Diegesis

Previously, I have outlined the concept of diegetic and non-diegetic gameplay, and argued that to play any TTRPG required acknowledgement of the inextricable relationship between the two.

As a quick summary:

Diegesis – the fictional world of the game where character actions and their consequences occur. Diegesis is the narrative and plot of an RPG

Diegetic gameplay – actions that contribute to the construction of the game’s diegesis, such as describing or enacting character or NPC actions, in-character dialogue, setting descriptions, etc.

Non-diegetic gameplay – any ‘out of character’ action that ultimately informs and supports the creation of the game’s diegesis. For example, dice rolls and discussions of game mechanics, character creation, and moving miniatures around a map.

As a game session progresses, gameplay will necessarily alternate between diegetic and non-diegetic modes. This will often happen within a single moment, where the roll of a dice and discussion of target numbers and results is followed by the narration of action determined by the outcome of the dice roll.

Choices and roleplaying

Like the matrix, the success roleplaying ultimately revolves around the participants making, and having the opportunity to make, choices. Playing a role is the act of making choices that you believe the character would make in whatever circumstances the game places them in. Speaking in different voices, or maintaining characterisations are all elements of playacting that can be an enhancement of roleplaying, but ultimately the choices a player makes for their character are at the core of what it means to play a role.

Having choices, and more importantly, having choices that matter, is an essential part of having a sense of agency within the game. Without being able to make choices that matter a player risks becoming the passive receiver of the GMs game and story rather than an active participant in the collective gaming experience.

For the GM, this also means giving characters and players choices to make. When a character has to make a choice, ultimately it is the player making the choice in a unification of the diegetic and non-diegetic aspects of the game.

While player choice and character choice are still separate, however it is one of the actions taken in playing an RPG in which the diegetic and non-diegetic elements of the game are most closely related. A character in an RPG is utterly incapable of making a choice that is not limited by the knowledge and imagination of the player, and it is because of this concept of a character being entirely contained within the mind of the player that the act of making choices crosses, and indeed starts to break down, the diegetic line.

In short, choices presented to characters in an RPG are elements of the game that simultaneously engage player and character, and thus create more significant moments of drama than strategies that are directed more toward the diegetic character or non-diegetic player.

Creating Drama through high-stakes choices

One way that choices can be used to create tension and drama in a game session is when a choice has high stakes; when there are significant consequences for whichever option the character chooses.

If conflict is the essence of drama, then choices between two conflicting ideas are inherently dramatic. For the choice to be dramatic, however, the character has to have some awareness of the choice being presented to them, and of the consequences of that choice.

For example: The choice between two different swords with which to attack an approaching enemy may result in a slight mechanical advantage that affects the outcome of the fight, but the act of choosing the sword itself is not likely to create much drama.

However, choosing between two swords when the character knows that one of them is a relic of no special power but of great symbolic value that will legitimise the heir to a downtrodden nation but the other would grant the wielder particular power in combat just as a guardian monster is barrelling down the corridor… that’s a choice with high stakes and potentially long lasting consequences.

Drama is created in the moment when a player or character has to make a meaningful choice, a difficult choice, or a choice that has significant consequences for the character, their allies and even the setting of the game.

Suspense – the tension of not knowing – is also created in the moment of choice, and when someone makes a choice that has potentially high consequences, suspense can be felt in the time between the choice being and the final confirmation of the outcome that follows.

The character who chooses the heirloom sword out of a sense of duty to the family it belongs to, but then has to fight off some guarding fell-beast without the benefit of the magic weapon is going to have a more suspenseful fight, as it is assumed that their choice may well cost them their life.

However, while such choices might make for key moments of drama in the climax of a story, not all choices presented to a character need to be so character or world defining in scale in order to effectively create drama within your game.

Choice, consequences and scale

The choices a GM presents to their players can be varying in scale and consequence. By presenting choices of different scale and stakes throughout a story, with consequences that converge at a climactic point in the session, or even at the end of a longer running campaign, you can create a sense of thematic connectedness that makes stories and games feel more unified and satisfying.

Such experiences are also inherently more ‘dramatic’ in the sense of inviting players to be more emotionally invested because the players will to some degree realise that their own actions have brought some of the circumstances they face at the moment of highest conflict.

Continuing the example of choosing between swords that is described above, having players face the threat of a new warlord’s growing power and who decides that the players are enemies to be exterminated can create an interesting story and series of challenges for the characters to resolve. Discovering later that the warlord gained their power by forcefully taking control of a downtrodden kingdom after a legitimate heir could not be found might bring a greater sense of personal engagement to the player or players who are happily wielding the sword they found in a seemingly unrelated adventure several sessions ago.

On a smaller scale, choices that shape the dramatic climax of a story may be littered throughout one or more gaming sessions.

Classic-bordering-on-cliche’d examples include: do the PCs choose to intervene when local guards are being overly rough with the townsfolk; the PCs find a precious object and later encounter someone looking for that lost item, claiming it has some great personal value. Do the players return it to it’s (claimed) owner, or keep it for their own benefit?; a natural disaster/monster/warband is destroying a generally peaceful town, do the PCs intervene? Or flee and protect themselves?

Each of these choices may inform a scene of social interaction or combat, but ultimately the path of action hinges on a choice that the characters and their players make.

As a GM I personally enjoy the tactic of introducing the characters into a moment of conflict and simply letting them try to figure out what is the appropriate course of action. Whether they pick a side, or choose to remain separate, is a choice that carries consequences.

How to build a dramatic story around choices

So as GM who wants to create more dramatic stories that engage players on an emotional level, how do you factor this into your session planning?

The first thing is to recognise that by valuing drama as a goal, you’re elevating the narrative aspect of your RPG, and so narrative structures will play an important part in the construction of your session or campaign. From there, you are most likely going to take one ow two approaches to introducing choices into your gaming session…

Convergent choices

… in which each choice the players make has some influence upon a predetermined end point.

One strategy that is offered as advice by many authors is to start with the ending and work your way backwards.

Imagine the climactic conflict at the end of your session, story or campaign and ask yourself what moment of choice might exist with that conflict. What are the conflicting ideals the PCs may have to choose between?

The type of story you’re trying to tell will often influence the kind of choice that frames your story. In heroic adventures, often the choice will be between some variation of selfishness or selflessness, or between doing what is right vs what is easy (which is a variation on selfless/selfish). In more political stories the choice might be between two conflicting ideologies that inform opposing sides of a conflict, or about the struggle to expose truth in a timely fashion. Romance often revolves around the choice between love and other priorities (family, wealth, status, or even life itself).

Regardless of what the choice is – consider how it manifests in your story? What are the avatars of the different options that players will interact with as they play the game?

Once you figure that out, work backwards to consider the choices that lead to the characters being involved in and how each choice may ultimately influence that final climax. If they had a chance to win over an NPC early in the game (or even just a choice to treat them well or not) then that NPC could end up as an ally, or may even end up on the opposing side.

Was there a key artifact or resource or piece of information that might affect the final outcome that the characters had the choice to obtain along the way? Then that too will build towards the shape of the final, climactic conflict.

Each choice the PCs face can either lead to a different scene in the path of the story OR it can influence an element of the next scene or of the final conflict. Either way, all choices ultimately converge on the final, dramatic climax.

Divergent choices

The other option, in a much more sand-box oriented game, it to let the choices the characters make be the deciding factor of where the story goes.

The GM may introduce persistent NPCs or locations to which the story keeps returning, but the nature of the PCs engagement with, and return to these people and places will be largely determined by the choices they make along the way.

For the GM, this approach requires a bit more detailed record keeping in order to identify choices whose outcomes and consequences might influence later scenes or conflicts. If you’re willing to allow PC choices to create divergent storylines, then for the purpose of creating drama the moments of choice in a game are often best presented as meaningful scenes or self-contained vignettes. While you may use the consequences of such choices to build towards a climactic moment over time, it’s going to be less direct or or guaranteed than if you plan for choices to converge on a predetermined moment of drama.

Introducing Uncertainty

Uncertainty is the enemy of choice. Any individual’s ability to confidently make a choice is undermined by how certain they are of either the principles or information on which their choice is based, or their certainty of the outcome that follows any choice they have made.

A GM can make any moment of choice that little bit more dramatic by simply introducing an element of uncertainty into the scenario. Rumours, half-truths, red-herrings and other plot points are a great way to make even the most innocuous moment more suspenseful and interesting.

Sure, the PCs could easily wade through that unit of guardsmen – but earlier they found evidence suggesting the presence of a werewolf in the region, and it may be that one of the guards is a deadly lycanthrope capable of tearing them apart… but they still need to get inside that castle before midnight! So what are they going to do?

The role of game mechanics in choice driven games

 

While choices may be a mechanism for creating drama, neither choice nor drama are a guarantee of the character’s success along their chosen path. Game mechanics still have a crucial role to play in determining the outcomes of a PCs choices – especially when such choices lead to combat.

The uncertainty of dice rolls allows you to to draw out the suspense of a moment or, better yet, a meaningful choice made by the PC gives greater weight to the dice roll and creates suspense around the outcome that wasn’t likely to be there before.

I just keep reminding myself that in order to keep the story alive, dramatic and interesting, the mechanics exist to serve the game’s diegesis, rather than try to replace it as a non-diegetic source of drama.

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Expectations and trust in RPGs: Or ‘Why GMs have an obligation to follow the rules’

Note: This is version 1.1 of this post, following feedback from various sources. Also, this post begins with one massive assumption – that people who play RPGs do so for the sake of entertainment and enjoyment, and that games are more entertaining and enjoyable when conducted within positive interpersonal relationships (as opposed to hostile or conflict-oriented relationships). If you disagree with this basic premise, you’re probably not going to find much value in the post that follows.

I decided to write this post after a brief conversation following this tweet:

 

Though in reality I was also responding to many other instances that I’ve seen this sentiment expressed in much angrier and more confrontational ways in different forums about gaming.

It is a sentiment with which I strongly disagree.

While every published RPG will likely include a statement that “these rules are just guidelines, change them as you see fit”, this does not grant a GM carte blanche to mix things up on a whim, or to do so at the expense of the rest of the players of the game.

This post is not about the freedom of gaming groups to modify the rules as they see fit. This post is about the mindset of some in which the GM is distinct from the players in a group, and believes they are not bound under any obligation to recognise the published rules of the game, or even, it seems, abide by unwritten social rules.

I’ve played in games with GMs who take the “GM is god” attitude, and on the whole found them to be utterly unenjoyable – not least of all because of the underlying conflict between people that this attitude fosters. I also took this attitude to being a GM at various times, and can also say that it was some of the worst GMing I’ve ever done, because, again, it fosters interpersonal conflict, but also because it transforms a position of responsibility into one of authority and power over people who are, otherwise, friends.

(and I want to note that while I identified Graham Warden’s tweet as an inciting incident for this post, in no way do I ascribe any particular intent or meaning on Graham’s part. He quite generously chatted with me for some time via twitter and even provided some feedback on an earlier draft of this post. Perhaps unfortunately, his tweet reminded me of a range of negative aspects of the gaming experience which I’m responding to, and I don’t want that negativity unfairly ascribed to him.)

The question of whether or not a GM is obligated to follow any kind of rules comes down to the GMs role in establishing and managing personal and player expectations within the game, the impact of individual expectations on the gaming experience and the role expectations may play in inciting conflict within a gaming group.

Expectations and emotional reactions

Have you ever heard it said that managing your expectations is an essential part of part of being happy?

Or what about the role that expectations play in creating humour, which says that humour is created when you violate an expectation the audience holds (either an expectation you create through the ‘setup’ of the joke, or an expectation commonly held as part of societal norms) in a way that is ultimately safe for the audience member.

There’s also a significant relationship between one’s expectations and feelings of safety and, consequently, anxiety.

Expectations play a significant role in the way we go about our lives, our state of mind and also our interactions with others.

Use walking as an example: when you expect the ground in front of you to be stable and flat, you step forward, almost unconsciously, confident in your expectation that the ground will take your weight and allow you to take another step. When something happens in contradiction to that expectation – maybe your foot hits an obstacle you hadn’t expected, or the ground was less solid that you expected – you might feel a range of emotions.

If you stumble slightly, it might be mild surprise. If you stumble in public you might feel embarrassment and even a bit defensive. If you suspect someone else has played a part in your stumble, you might feel anger or betrayal or humiliation, depending on your predisposition. And if you stumble and start to fall, you might even feel momentary panic at the possibility of imminent physical harm.

We form expectations based on past experiences that we extrapolate into the future, and it is the relationship between those expectations and our experiences that have such a significant impact on our state of mind and capacity for action.

What is important to note about this function of human psychology is that while you can attempt to apply conscious control over your expectations, the forming of expectations and their influence on your emotions and behaviour happen unconsciously as an ongoing process. It is entirely possible to experience an emotional reaction on behalf of an expectation you didn’t even realise you had. As such, you can’t always control your emotional reactions to things, but you can seek to exercise some control over your behaviour in response to those reactions.

You can see examples of this in just about every area of human activity. Every seen a professional sportsperson go absolutely berserk at a referee? Chances are the referee made a call that seriously clashed with the players’ expectations about the validity of their actions in the game. Or in a domestic setting have you ever felt frustration, or seen someone get frustrated or even angry when a household item isn’t in the place it was expected to be in?

That’s someone acting on an emotional reaction to expectations not being met, regardless of whether or not those expectations were reasonable.

So what does this have to do with RPGs and gaming?

Player expectations and rules

Just as humans go about their lives with expectations based on their past experiences, a player engaging in the fictional reality of an RPG decides on the actions of their character based on their expectations of the fictional world in which the game is being played.

So what informs those expectations? First, like in real life, past experiences of playing such games, but secondly, and possibly more importantly, the published rules of the game they are playing.

A player who has read the core rules of the game, even if they’ve only read the rules as they pertain to their character, will have formed a set of expectations around how the game is played, how the fictional game world works in accordance with the rules, and what kind of actions their character can take.

If, for whatever reason, the players expectations are broken, they are going to experience exactly the same kind of emotional reaction as a person would in any other circumstance. As with any other situation, it is entirely possible for a player to have entirely unreasonable expectations. Maybe their expectation are being informed by a misinterpretation of the rules, or maybe they expect to always succeed without factoring the random element of dice rolls into their expectations. Nevertheless, broken expectations will provoke a response.

The nature and severity of someone’s reaction will be modified by the circumstances in which the expectation is broken, much as with the example of an unexpected stumble while walking.

When a player wants to perform an action during a low-risk, relatively calm moment of the game, only to be told “the rules don’t quite work that way”, then their reaction is likely going to be similarly calm – especially if the player is then able to reframe their proposed action according to an updated understanding of the rules.

If, however, a player seeks to perform an action during the climax of a significant moment of conflict during which the stakes are high and possibly the character’s very life is on the line, only to be told “you can’t do that”, then the emotional reaction is likely to be more significant.

In a perfect world all people would have the level of self control necessary to be able to process such a reaction, filter it through an analysis of their own expectations before reacting in a measured way (“I’m sorry, I thought rule X meant I could do Y, could you explain?”). However, humans are wonderfully irrational creatures at times, and an outburst of “That’s bullshit!” is just as likely, if not moreso.

It’s entirely likely that such a reaction from a player will violate an expectation of the GM who initiated whichever interpretation or the game rules the player was responding to. If nothing else it may contradict the GMs expectation that they were correct or justified in their initial behaviour. Expectations and reactions are complicated, overlapping, and sometimes circular things.

This is where the behaviour and attitude of the GM come in to it.

The inherent authority structures within (most) RPGs

While there are a range of ways for a group of people to engage in a TTRPG, the most commonly encountered is one which has an individual as Game Master, and everyone else in the role of Player, controlling one or more characters within the diegetic game.

While the players control their character(s), this structure places the GM in the position of being the author of the universe in which the characters are acting. There are many different approaches to the role of GM, from being the ‘lead storyteller’ to the ‘primary arbiter’ to the ‘GM is god’ – regardless of how authoritarian a GM is or is not in their approach to the role, the GM still defines the way the world works around the players.

But while the GM has authority, they also are ultimately responsible for meeting or violating player expectations about that world in the context of the game.

Whether or not a GM adheres to the rules of the game, or discusses rules variations in an upfront manner, plays a significant role in their ability to gratify or violate the expectations of a player, and, more importantly, it informs the very process of forming expectations about a game that a player may have.

This is where trust comes in. People form expectations about each other, and react accordingly, based on past experiences, and trust is the name generally given to positive expectations of another person.

If Players have the expectation that the GM will follow the rules and identify specific rules variations ahead of time, then there will be greater trust, and players will be more willing to take risks within those rules and engage more actively in the game.

Trust is an essential resource that GMs need for those times when they want to defy the rules to serve the story – one example includes the characters being stripped of their powers or equipment, forcing them to deal with challenges that were once beneath them. If there is trust between Gm and players, then such a situation is more likely to be accepted. However, if a player feels that the GM ignores the rules on a whim, breaking expectations and jeopardising the player’s enjoyment of the game (and their character’s life), then trust is diminished and the player approaches the game more hesitantly, and the focus shifts from diegetic action to resolve challenges in game to interpersonal conflict as a way of addressing matters of character action.

Like with the very forming of expectations and reactions to them, this relationship exists whether people are conscious of it or not – and it is an unfortunate reality that it is much easier to damage and destroy trust between people than it is to build it up.

So what does this all mean?

RPGs are a unique form of entertainment that blend free-form action with rules-defined play structures, and they are also an inherently collaborative social recreational activity, which means that there is no real separation of the game from the people who play it. As such, I believe that any approach to playing a game needs to include an awareness of the people playing it.

Ultimately this boils down into two sets of advice for players and GMs:

Advice for Players

  • Be aware of your expectations, and what is informing them
  • Be aware of your reactions to expectations being broken
  • Try to be aware of the expectations of others at the table, including the GM (session 0 is a good way to address this)

Advice for GMs

  • Be aware of your expectations about being a GM, and what is informing them
  • Recognise that the rules of the game play a critical role in the forming of player expectations and enjoyment of the game, and that you have primary authority and responsibility over the exercising of those rules in high stakes, high conflict game situations
  • Discuss variations to rules upfront, in a manner timely enough to let players shape their expectations around them
  • Recognise that disagreements about rules are often more about the expectations formed around those rules, and consider your own role in informing and breaking those expectations.

Some final thoughts – Session 0

One of the most popular strategies for managing expectations in an RPG is to have a “session 0” – before gameplay actually begins, have an open discussion about the style and approach to playing the game that everyone can agree to. While I think this is a good idea, I’ve never really engaged this strategy explicitly. Instead, I try to be open about matters of rules and game management as the game progresses. We will have fairly open discussions about relevant sections of rules as they pertain to an upcoming scene, and then play through that scene.

Regardless of how you go about it, transparency is at the core of these strategies, and a consistently transparent approach will, over time, become the platform on which people in your group will build their expectations and trust in each other, and this is an essential part of a collaborative social activity like TTRPGs.

Diegesis in TTRPGs, (OR why I don’t oppose meta-gaming or table-talk – any more!)

Between the various Facebook groups and gaming forums I engage with, the topics of meta-gaming and table talk come up almost weekly and are often initiated by relatively new GMs looking for suggestions of how to control or even ‘punish’ players who engage in these practices. I understand how they feel, because once I was in that position, but over the years I have ultimately have come to the understanding that not only are such strategies in contradiction to the nature and spirit of roleplaying games, but that the very opposition to metagaming and table-talk is an opposition to essential elements of the game experience.

The primary reason for complaint by GMs about players engaging in meta-gaming or table-talk is that it ruins any suspense, surprise or tension that the GM is trying to create by withholding information from the players, which they do in order to allow for a dramatic reveal or an unexpected occurrence at some point in the game. I believe that while the intent of the GMs in this instance is positive, they are reaching for the wrong tools in order to create the desired tension, suspense or drama, and that a primary reason they are reaching for the wrong tools is due to the way they view the gaming experience.

By exploring the concept of Diegesis in RPGs I aim to explain why table-talk and meta-gaming are not actually the problems many people feel them to be, and in fact, should be embraced as essential parts of the gaming experience that can make the whole thing more enjoyable for everyone involved.

First, some quick definitions:

  • Table-talk – when players talk about things that are not specific contributions to the in-game/in-character events taking place at that moment.
  • Meta-gaming – when a player uses knowledge of the game/rules/setting that their character would not know as the basis of in-character decisions and actions.

The phrase table-talk has it’s origins in card games, particularly Bridge, where non-game related talk might be used to send signals to your partner about the cards in your hand; this effectively constitutes cheating in a competitive game.  In discussions about RPGs, table-talk is often similarly framed as a form of cheating. I disagree with the idea that it’s cheating, but insist rather that it’s an essential element of playing an RPG.

Meta-gaming is similarly derided by many as a form of cheating. It needs to be noted here that the term metagaming is used to describe a whole range of behaviours that all hang upon the common element of ‘players using game knowledge the character shouldn’t have’, but varying in extremity based, again, on how GM and player view the nature of the gaming experience. Later in this article I’ll explain how metagaming can be viewed as either an intrinsic necessity of the game or as the result of a person actually refusing to play the role playing game, depending on whether or not they engage with the diegesis of the game.

Before expanding on those points further, I need to outline some key points:

  1. The inevitability of collaborative plot and narrative.

All RPGS, from the most board-game-like dungeon-hack to the systemless LARP, contain the basic elements of a story; one or more characters (characters), doing stuff (action), in one or more places (setting). And every such story is comprised of two elements, Plot and Narrative.

‘Plot’ means the relevant events of the story in the order that they happened, and ‘Narrative’ broadly refers to the way the events are presented.

In an RPG, everything that a GM and player do is a contribution to a collaborative plot and narrative and it is this process of collaboration that ultimately defines the experience of playing an RPG.

When a player says that their character chooses to open the door on the right, followed by the GM  telling them that the sound of the door opening wakes the sleeping ogre on the other side, they are jointly constructing the plot of their collaborative story.

When the player details their character action in any way they are creating narrative, from the simple “I/my character opens the door on the right” to the more elaborate “creeping through the dancing shadows cast by flickering torchlight, stout Grunthold approaches the rightmost door and, after placing the torch in the rusty holder mounted on the wall, grips the handle of his warhammer in one hand and with the other pushes hard to open the door…”

My proposition is that for the vast majority of RPG groups and games out there, the co-creation of a collaborative story is an unavoidable, and in fact defining, aspect of the way the game is played . What tends to vary instead is the degree to which participants in each game think of their game experience in this way.

While some have likened this to the classic trope of Olympian gods seated around a table playing a divine chess game with mortals, I feel that image invites too many expectations of competition, between the players and their characters.

Rather, I prefer to think of an RPG in a similar fashion to the production team of a movie, TV show or theatrical production – the players are the collaborative producers of the story being played, but are simultaneously the audience for whose entertainment the story is being produced.

Once you view your RPG as a being inherently an exercise in collaborative storytelling, then you also are engaging in two other intrinsic elements of such an experience…

  1. Diegetic and Nondiegetic gameplay

Diegesis refers to anything told by a narrator in a story, usually comprising character actions and thoughts. The term was first detailed by Plato, however in more contemporary parlance, particularly inspired by filmmaking, a Diegetic story element is one which exists within the world of the story, while Non-Diegetic elements are those that exist outside the world of the story but that are included for the sake of the audience.

A common example is that of music. If the character in a film is listening to the radio, then the music they can hear would be diegetic music. But if the audience can hear music that the character cannot (which describes the majority of music in movies) then that is non-diegetic music.

When it comes to RPGs, the act of playing the game also has diegetic and nondiegetic elements, and both are intrinsic parts of the game that are, ultimately, inseparable from each other.

First of all, a player’s knowledge and application of the rules, the act of rolling dice, moving miniatures on a map, questioning or clarifying rules, or otherwise discussing elements of the game are all examples of non-diegetic gameplay. The act of creating a character is a non-diegetic part of playing the game, establishing and adhering to rules is non-diegetic gameplay, and, essentially, any conversation between participants that is not specifically part of the game being played out in a given moment is non-diegetic gameplay.

These elements of non-diegetic gameplay all exist to inform the diegetic gameplay, which is the construction of the collaborative story taking place within the fictional world of your game. Without having created a character or knowing the rules that govern their possible actions, a player cannot effectively decide upon their character’s actions without some knowledge of the rules, or opportunity to clarify their understanding as it relates to the game.

The way in which you play your game may sit anywhere on a sliding scale between the diegetic and nondiegetic elements of gameplay, preferencing one over the other, or trying to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. There’s no right or wrong amount of focus to put on each element except as suits the preferences of the participants of a particular game – but both are, intrinsically, unavoidably, present in your game to some degree.

  1. Separation of Player from Character

It should seem a fairly obvious statement at this point that while the character is primarily a diegetic element of the game, the player and their engagement with the game constitute non-diegetic gameplay actions.

It is utterly impossible for a player to be part of the diegetic gameplay. Even the most committed of LARPers are still players depicting fictional events constrained by rules of play that are not present inside the fiction (e.g. using boffers or safe combat rules to govern play). So while the barrier between diegetic and nondiegetic gameplay may vary, it is always there to some degree.

The important thing for all GMs and players to be clear on is the delineation of diegetic  and nondiegetic elements in their game. 

As stated previously, all player activity ultimately manifests in the diegetic frame of the game; characters take certain actions, and succeed or fail in their efforts based on the non-diegetic gameplay actions of the players as they contribute to the collective story.

While the challenges that exist within those stories are primarily diegetic challenges for the characters, that does not preclude the GM from incorporating non-diegetic challenges that are intended for the player to engage with and solve.

Common examples include logic or language puzzles that characters encounter, but the players have a chance  to solve as part of the nondiegetic gameplay. They will then either succeed or not, at which point the player might use their character’s stats and related game mechanics to achieve a diegetic solution to the puzzle. 

What’s important to remember is that regardless of whether the challenges of a game are approached as part of the diegetic or nondiegetic, the final result is ultimately part of the diegetic game, contributing towards the construction of the collaborative plot and narrative. 

Table-talk, therefore, should be viewed as part of non-diegetic gameplay, and an intrinsic part of the game.

In order for characters to take the most appropriate diegetic action, a player may need to clarify their understanding of a situation, or specific rules, etc.

By embracing non-diegetic conversation – even in the middle of combat actions – you’re giving the players a chance to make their diegetic actions richer and more relevant to the story. Managing time and the pace of play is something that needs to be considered, but again, this is an element of non-diegetic gameplay to be worked out within the group, rather than enforced by the GM.

I also find that this conversation is an essential part of helping people who are new to the group, game or even the hobby itself feel supported in their involvement.

(Note – table-talk is a bit different than ‘off-topic conversation’. If you’re trying to run/play a game and someone at the table won’t shut up about last night’s sportsball game, or brings out their craft kit to make costumes for their cats, that’s not non-diegetic action, that’s a different issue altogether.)

Metagaming – the scale between nondiegetic play, and not playing the game.

The definition of metagaming is problematic, but, at least from the GMs perspective, when you view the RPG experience as engaging in nondiegetic gameplay in order to create the diegetic plot and narrative, and prepare game challenges appropriately, most forms of metagaming instead become part of the nondiegetic gameplay and can quickly cease to be a problem.

Ultimately, when the GM and players view playing an RPG as a collaborative exercise in co-constructing plot and narrative within the confines of a specific game, setting or system, player knowledge is not something that risks interfering with the GMs plans, but instead has the potential to enhance the story that grows out of the collaboration.

When the player knows something important about the game world that their character does not, that could inform the players decision to direct their character to take actions that might result in them learning that information, and that search – the player’s contribution to both the plot and narrative of the game – gives the GM a stimulus from which to build new sub-plots and story arcs.

At the more extreme end of the metagaming scale, however, you can encounter problematic behaviours such as players who ignore the diegetic scenario almost entirely, and either set off to pursue their own goals regardless of the collective story, or they insist on using purely nondiegetic solutions to diegetic challenges. Such individuals seem to often have a competitive view of what it means to play a game, and they’re playing to win according to their own definition of what that means.

I argue that such individuals are not actually playing the game. If the game consists of the rules, setting and specific fiction of any given session, then refusing to appropriately engage with all elements is to be, at best, engaging in a close approximation of the game. It’s like having someone turning up to a hockey field with a pink flamingo lawn ornament instead of a hockey stick, while still expecting to be taken seriously.

In such circumstances, the issue is likely to be one of social dynamics and personal relationships, and is not specifically about the game itself, and in the long run, such individuals either need to be brought around to a more collaborative understanding of the activity they are participating in, or in the worst cases, excluded.

So what’s a GM to do?

So if you’re using previously unknown information to create a ‘twist’ in your story, or as a way to introduce drama and tension into a game, then what can a GM do to make the game an interesting experience for the players?

For most games, the random outcomes of dice rolls provide much of the tension, provided that the mechanics of encounters and challenges are at an appropriate level to that of the player characters – the challenge is to treat the outcome of dice rolls not just as ‘wins’ or ‘losses’ but as the prompts for the next action in the plot, or the style of the next piece of the narrative.

The GM can provide additional challenge to the players by incorporating nondiegetic challenges for them to solve, but in RPGs the final outcome of any challenge must be played out diegetically, because if you as a GM make the success or failure dependent purely on the knowledge and skills of the players without at least allowing an option for utilising the rules that govern the diegetic world, then like the Pink Flamingo Player, you’re possibly not playing the same game as your group, either.

However as a GM what you can do is define what is at stake, depending on the characters’ actions. Every campaign, session, story or even action can have clear stakes that give the player and character a reason for the things they do in game.

In combat the stakes are already clearly defined. Win, and your character survives and usually obtain new things. Lose, and they’ll likely die or suffer some other set back.

But why are they fighting in the first place? What is at stake on a broader level if they win, lose or draw?

When you view RPGs as a collaborative experience, these questions quickly provide vehicles for drama, tension, and unexpected outcomes that cannot be duplicated in any other way.

But that’s a topic for a future post.

 

 

NOTE: This post has been heavily revised after a number of discussions with other gamers on Reddit and the Onyx Path Forums. Thanks to everyone who challenged some of the initial ideas and helped provide clarity.

Night brings the sun (a tale of heroic sacrifice)

[Image: ‘Night brings the sun’ by Jen]

I’ve been running an Exalted 2E game for about 2 years, in which time we’ve managed 14 sessions.

A recent session included the culmination of several plot lines and resulted in a large battle between the PCs, who were leading a militia of a few hundred hastily trained refugees, and a force of spider-like beastmen created by a sorcerous second-circle demon. The beastment were led by terrestrial exalted who were bound to love and serve the demon by mind-bending sorcery. However, the beastmen were only distraction from the army of war ghosts marching up from a nearby shadowland to overrun the refugee township the PCs were defending.

The fight with the beastmen took a hard toll on the PCs, with most of them drained of essence and suffering a few injuries, but one PC (a night caste martial artist) was crippled in the fight. As they were assessing the outcome of their narrow victory over the beastmen, the PCs became aware of the army of ghosts marching from another direction.

As the army of ghosts approached, the PCs – having recently gained access to a salt mine – tried to build a salt line around the village, but realised they wouldn’t have enough to do so, so instead they built a defensive salt line between the village and the army, planning to use some of their various travel charms and magic to encircle the army of ghosts with salt once they drew closer, and then just wait for the sun to rise.

They didn’t consider that the demon would be leading the ghostly army, and one casting of Magma Kraken (a powerful spell that summons tentacles of molten rock from the ground to fight) was able to disrupt their defensive salt line and gave the PCs the problem of dealing with the tentacles before they did any real damage.

This was when the crippled night caste decided to act.

Previously, the night caste had been having troubled dreams, which had led to learning the first few charms of the Quicksilver Hand of Dreaming martial arts style.

For those unfamiliar, the first couple of charms of this style include the ability to give people specific visions or dreams, and then another charm lets you pull those dreams out of people’s heads and manifest them in the real world. The night caste had not, up to this point, really explored the possibilities of this combo.

Realising the likelihood of defeat at the hand of the ghosts, which would mean a terrible end for the village and its 5000 occupants, the Night Caste PC gave a stirring speech in which he called for a volunteer willing to give their life in defence of their home and family.

Then, using an ancient artifact (Wings of the Raptor… a magic cloak turns into giant wings), the night caste flew high into the midnight sky, and with their last remaining essence used a combo of Martial Arts charms charms to give the person a waking dream of the rising sun that burns away the undead.

Then, knowing full well what it would mean to touch the surface of the sun, he plucked out that dream, letting the sun shine brightly for a fraction of a second before it incinerated both the character and his volunteer, but also destroying the entire army of ghosts in a blinding flash.

Between the player first proposing the idea and the final execution, we had a bit of discussion about the implications of the action and the ultimate finality of attempting to hold the sun in the palm of your hand. After considering some alternatives, the player decided to commit to it and we played out the final moment which brought a quick end end to the character and the battle. To background this event, we used the soundtrack from Sunshine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_b6C0PHXkQ

The final serendipity of the moment was the fact that the group had only just recently learned of the fate of the character’s first age incarnation, who had similarly died when a solar circle spell he had been casting to slay a horde of demons had been disrupted, and he similarly exploded, taking many of the demons with him, but ultimately killing himself and a circle-mate.

Heroic sacrifices are rare moments in roleplaying games – and need to be rare moments in order to maintain the weight and impact of the decision by the character/player – but when they come up in an appropriate moment it can be a real highlight to a game session, and even a whole campaign.

This moment was a great example of the collaborative storytelling of roleplaying, and one of many examples of why I love this hobby.

7 Principles of Good GMing

This blog post began with a joke which, to understand, needs a bit of context.

When I’m not gaming I’m a teacher in Australia, and one of my regular gaming groups includes several other teachers.

In Australia we have a set of professional standards for teachers that inform accreditation, professional learning, evaluations and basically all aspects of a teachers practice.

The first of these is “Know your students and how they learn”. In a conversation about the our recent game, for which I am the GM, one of the players asked about my approach to running games and in response I rephrased the first teaching standard as “Know your players and how they play.”

Great joke, right? You had to be there.

While the comment was flippant, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me, and when I thought about the other professional standards, they also translated quite effectively into a gaming context. There seemed to be a lot of overlap between my perception of a good GM and those practices considered ‘best practice’ for teachers.

I wondered; could these inform a set of Principles of Good GM-ing?

While I’ve read many excellent books and blogs about GMing, and while some talk about the qualities or techniques of a good GM, they don’t always succeed in identifying the behaviours and practices that a person might engage in to be a good GM, or to become a better one.

So, with that thought bubble expanding inside my brain, I set about adapting the Australian Professional Teaching Standards into a gaming context to see if they all could be applied to the practice of being a good GM.

So here is my first attempt at coopting the Australian Professional Teaching Standards into the Principles of Good GM-ing

1. Know your players and how they play

A good GM understands the kinds of games, stories, and events that their players find interesting and engaging, and uses those elements to craft plots and narratives that till be fun to play. This does not mean a GM should capitulate to every whimsical desire of every player, but rather a good GM seeks to find an equilibrium in the game that offers something to everyone, rather than forcing a particular style of play on to their group without consideration of players’ preferences.

A common strategy toward this goal is to start the game with a ‘Session 0’ where players and GM can talk about their preferences and expectations and find common ground before commencing play. For the GM, however, it is an ongoing process of observation and adjustment as the game progresses.

2. Know the game and how to run it

The GM should be fairly familiar with the setting and rules of the game being played. While many GMs and gaming groups introduce homebrewed rules and settings, these should be discussed and agreed upon outside of play (when delivering the death blow to one of your players’ characters is never the time to introduce your new house rule that allows certain attacks to bypass or otherwise ignore armour).

The published rules of a game define people’s understanding and expectations of the gaming experience, and the shorter the distance between someone’s expectations and experience, the happier and more satisfied they will be with the experience.

Adhering to the rules faithfully – or flagging variations to the rules ahead of time – is an essential element of trust between GM and players, and that trust is essential to players feeling safe and free to take risks either mechanically, or with their roleplaying.

3. Plan for and implement appropriate  gaming experiences

Every group has it’s own preferred playing style, from the rigidly mechanistic board-game-like dungeon-hack to nearly mechanics-free LARPs to the completely improvised collaborative story-telling.

Whatever your group’s approach, as a GM, you need to ensure you plan appropriately for each session, as even effective improvisation takes some planning and practice.

Your planning may involve a flexible plot outline which is altered by your players’ decisions in game, rehearsing the voice or mannerisms of a major NPCs, you may like to prepare pictures or maps, or maybe you prepare 3D printed dungeons with carefully painted miniatures.

In effect, this standard speaks to the implementation of the first principle, and says that whatever your group’s agreed style of play, make sure you are prepared to deliver on that style.

4. Create and maintain supportive and safe gaming environments

Like any collaborative activity, roleplaying depends on a certain amount of trust between players and GM. That trust depends on all participants feeling safe and supported within the gaming environment in order to take risks and engage in the game in new and interesting ways.

While roleplaying is usually a collaborative activity among friends or peers, and as such everyone has some responsibility towards a positive gaming environment, the GM holds at least symbolic significance within the group and has a larger-than-average role to play in establishing the tone and nature of gaming group interactions.

Consider particularly the way in which you handle queries or disagreements over rules, or the distinct separation of dialogue directed at characters compared to players, but also how effectively you implement the first 3 principles will contribute significantly to players’ feeling safe enough to take risks within the game.

5. Acknowledge and respond to player contributions to the game.

(This one is the most modified from the original language of the Teaching Standard)

Almost all games contain a mechanism for character advancement through the earning of Experience Points (XP), Karma, or other abstract representations of growth-through-experience that can be used to advance a character’s ability. In the first instance, this principle is about the appropriate use of such systems to acknowledge and reward desired behaviours within the game.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this principle is about player agency. Agency – being the perception or belief that ones actions result in a meaningful effect – is a key part of enjoyment within a roleplaying game, as well as a significant contributor to a person’s overall sense of wellbeing. Few things are more demotivating than the belief that one’s own actions are pointless and this is as true in roleplaying games as it is in the workplace or more generally in life.

As such, the good GM considers the actions of players and their characters and allows them to have an effect on the game, to influence the setting, the outcome of a scene, or even the direction of future stories.

This is part of the collaborative storytelling process that exists to varying degrees within all roleplaying games.

6. Engage in ongoing learning

At its core, this principle is an acknowledgement of the fact that being a good GM is ultimately a process of ongoing effort, rather than a fixed state of being. A good GM is not something you are, but rather Good GMing is something you do.

As an extension of the second principle, to be a good GM, be prepared to continually revise aspects of your game, your story, the published rules, your session notes, etc. It is a rare human who could have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the rules within a single gaming system, or the nuances of the setting that might be relevant to an upcoming session. For the majority of us, it requires an ongoing process of revising rules, adjusting ideas, seeking inspiration form other sources, or even just reflecting on what went well or could have been improved from previous session.

7. Engage with other GMs, players, writers and the gaming community

Roleplaying is a collaborative, community-based activity. As such, your practices as a GM can only be improved or enriched by engaging with the game from a community perspective. Whether it comes in the form of ongoing discussion with your group, participating in online forums, contributing to Q&As about particular topics relevant to your game, any broader engagement will ultimately provide you with opportunities to test and expand your ideas and understanding of your game.

 

So that’s it. A model of Good GMing derived from the Australian Professional teaching Standards. This is still very much in draft form, however I feel there’s enough here to be worthy of refining over time.

What do you think? Is there any aspect of being a Good Gm that you think isn’t covered in these 7 principles? Or is there something here that you don’t agree is necessary in order to be a Good GM? Let me know in the comments below.

Tales of Grey-introduction

I’ve been playing table-top role-playing games (or pen-and-paper, if you prefer) for a little over 20 years, and for most of that time I’ve been in the role of Game Master, creating stories, settings and conflicts for my friends to navigate with their characters.

The storytelling aspect of RPGs has always been my favourite part of the hobby, and as a GM I most enjoy devising stories and scenes that (hopefully!) engage players and make the game a more story-driven experience.

The title of this blog is in reference to my preferred approach to devising games, which is to create morally ambiguous situations in which the focus is more about the choices the characters make and the consequences of those choices than just on the results of dice rolls. This can work in different ways depending on the genre constraints of each specific game, but in general I find it an effective way to approach each game session that can result in extended engagement by the players.

This site is a combination of a blog about Roleplaying games and related resources, and a place to collect and publish some of the scenarios, characters and gaming resources I develop along the way on the off chance that anyone else finds them useful.